IDEs vs Text Editors

IDEs are out there and they are a natural evolution for developers. IDEs can help with several tasks, from simple code formating to code generation and advanced refactoring techniques.

Still, simple text editors with features like code highlighting and word completion are still there. Sublime Text, Atom, GNU Emacs and Vim are some good example of text editors that are not hard to find if you walk into a software development team.

The thing is, with so many good options for IDEs, why do people still use simple text editors?

Well, I cannot speak for everyone else out there, but here are some of my points on why I prefer to work with a text editor rather than an IDE.

I’m using Vim for the past 5+ years and I even have a nice configuration for it that I like to share around. Check the project out on GitHub.

It all started when my laptop broke and I had to spend a few weeks coding on an 10” Asus Eee PC. Back then I was using a local LAMP stack, no VMs or Containers, and Netbeans was my best friend.

Instaling a LAMP stack was the easy part, but actually running Netbeans was kind of a pain, not only because of the memory usage, but also because of the space on the screen, even hiding most of the menus, I was still having just a small space left to code on.

So, this was my perfect excuse to actually try Vim a bit more than the usual messing around and trying a couple of colorschemes that every developer does at some point.

And here is the first reason to use a Text Editor instead of an IDE: Machine Resources. One may say that this is not the case anymore, specially using modern hardware, but for me, reducing the resources’ usage is kind of a life style now.

And then I started adding plugins and more plugins to Vim. The idea was to replace all the features I liked about Netbeans, like code completion for classes and methods, displaying the documentation and some kind of macros to generate pieces of code.

Of course I could not find all the pieces, but I got used to do some stuff manually, after some time.

After some weeks I had my laptop back and I decided to keep on using Vim and something really nice happened: I could migrate all my configs to the other machine by simply cloning the repo. Wow! No more going into several config windows and trying to remember every shortcut I made on another machine. Simply clone the repo under ~/.vim, link the vimrc file and you are done. Just like magic, right?

And this is the second reason to use a text editor (such as Vim and Emacs), you can usually have your configuration migrated into other systems in no time and usually not depending on other software (Ok, I do depend on Git here, but this is ok). Again, one may say that you can copy the config dir from IDEs, but, you know, it is not the same ;)

I spent then some months learning Vim one command at a time and a couple of tricks here and there. Of course it does not take months to learn the basics to be actually productive with Vim, but I was trying to learn not more than one or two commands per day and trying not to forget some of them. In the end it did not work and now I think I have a core set of commands on my fingertips and I usually go with them for everything.

And there you go, yet another reason: Once you learn how to use an editor like Vim or Emacs you will be able to use it the same way anywhere, even in different operatin systems.

Ok, now, back to the main topic, what is better, an IDE or a Text Editor?

Well, it depends a lot on your needs, but in my opinion everyone should try to use a simple text editor for a while at least once. You may not stick to it but you will have some learnings to take with you.

By using a text editor you will have to better understand the architecture of the application you are working on. If you have to manually create directories and files and classes and everything else you will have a better overview of the whole software and why things are the way they are.

Another thing is that you will have to better understant the languages you work with. Without autocompletion and some magic from IDEs you will see yourself forced to learn some basics by heart and to look more into the manual pages. And I’m from the opinion that if a language is too hard to program with without the assistence of an IDE, it is because such language failed beign for humans to write and read.

Since most of the text editors do not have “project like” features, you will not be able to run searches on your entire codebase from within the text editor, actually in such situations you will have to use other tools like the good and old grep or some modern flavour like ack.

And if you have to replace several occurences of a string you will use something like awk or sed.

You will have to use git or other versioning tools on the command line and learn it’s basics.

After trying a regular text editor for a while and doing things manually you will better understand what the IDE is doing for you and will even be able to solve problems when the IDE fails to help.

As I said, I think every software developer should have this experience at least once, and then decide the path to follow.

So, what do you think? What about playing around with Vim for a while? If you don’t like it you can just walk away with some new knowledge ;-)

Evaldo Junior

Web developer, writer, speaker, Free and Open Source Software contributor and sometimes a gamer e a guitar and ukulele player.

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